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Teilhard de Chardin, Pierre


TEILHARD DE CHARDIN, PIERRE . Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (18811955), a French Jesuit, was a distinguished scientist of human origins, a Christian mystic, and a prolific religious writer. Prohibited by his church from publishing any nonscientific works, his philosophical and theological writings were printed only after his death, though they circulated clandestinely before. His major opus, Le Phénomène humain, appeared in 1955 and was an immediate best-seller. The English translation, introduced by Julian Huxley, was titled The Phenomenon of Man (1959), later more accurately retranslated as The Human Phenomenon (1999). Throughout his life, Teilhard de Chardin reflected on the meaning of Christianity in the light of modern science, especially in relation to evolution. He was concerned with the social, cultural, and spiritual evolution of humankind, as well as the place of religion, spirituality, and mysticism in an increasingly global society marked by pluralism and convergence. Some of his thoughts parallel those of the Hindu evolutionary thinker Sri Aurobindo.


Born on May 1, 1881, in Sarcenat near Clermont-Ferrand, France, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was the fourth of eleven children of an ancient aristocratic family of the Auvergne. His father was a gentleman farmer with scientific and literary interests; his mother was a great-grandniece of Voltaire. Brought up in a traditional Catholic milieu marked by a vibrant faith, Teilhard's pantheistic and mystical leanings were already evident in childhood. His devout mother shared his interest in mysticism, whereas his father encouraged the collection of fossils, stones, and other specimens, laying the foundations for his son's future scientific career.

After an excellent education at a Jesuit boarding school, Teilhard entered the Jesuit novitiate at the age of eighteen. Deeply torn between an equally passionate love for God and the natural world, he resolved his crisis of faith by realizing that the search for spiritual perfection could be combined with that for scientific understanding. When the Jesuits were exiled from France, he continued his theological studies at Hastings in the South of England (19021905; 19081912), where he was ordained in 1911. From 1905 to 1908 he taught physics and chemistry to mainly Muslim pupils at a Jesuit school in Cairo. There he first discovered his great attraction to the desert and the East, leading him later to write with great lyrical beauty about cosmic and mystical life, culminating in his spiritual classics "Mass on the World" (1923) and The Divine Milieu (1927).

Henri Bergson's Creative Evolution (1907), which saw the world immersed in an immense stream of evolutionary creation, revealed to Teilhard the meaning of evolution for the Christian faith. Overflowing with the presence of the divine, the living world was experienced by Teilhard as an all-encompassing cosmic, mystical, and "divine milieu." These deeply mystical experiences were followed by scientific studies in Paris, interrupted by World War I, during which Teilhard served as a stretcher-bearer in a North African regiment at the Western Front. Living through the fiercest battles, miraculously never wounded, he found himself part of a pluralistic "human milieu," which led him to speculate about the growing oneness of humanity. These reflections grew later into the new idea of the "noosphere" (sphere of mind), an immense web of inter-thinking and interaction that connects people around the globe, hailing a new stage in human evolution. Almost daily encounters with death moved Teilhard to leave an "intellectual testament," communicating his vision of the world, which in spite of its turmoil he saw as animated by and drawn towards God. He began to write a series of stirring essays, published posthumously as Writings in Time of War (1968). Little known, these were seminal for his later work and provide one of the best introductions to his thought.

Teilhard completed his studies in geology and paleontology after the war. Following the brilliant defense of his doctorate in 1922, he was elected president of the French Geological Society and appointed to the chair in geology at the Institut Catholique in Paris, where he could publicly expound his ideas about evolution and Christianity. This soon led to difficulties with his church, which continued throughout his life. Because of these difficulties, he was glad to join a fossil expedition in China in 1923, where he traversed much of the Mongolian Desert. China soon became a place of almost permanent exile, and he spent most of his scientific career there (19261946) after his license to teach at the Institut Catholique was revoked in 1925 as a result of a paper he wrote on evolution and original sin. Teilhard first worked with Jesuit fellow scientists in Tianjin, and he then became a member of the Chinese Geological Survey in Beijing, where he collaborated in the discovery of the skull of the 200,000-year-old Peking Man at Zhoukoudian. His scientific work brought him into contact with leading paleontologists of his time and involved numerous expeditions across Asia, including trips to India, Indonesia, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, and Japan, as well as regular travels between East and West.

The unforgettable experience of World War I was followed by the equally formative discovery of the vast continent of Asia with its variety of peoples and cultures. Many of Teilhard's essays were written in China, as were his two main books, a practical treatise on spirituality, The Divine Milieu, and his best known, though most difficult work, The Human Phenomenon, which he wrote from 1938 to 1940. Teilhard met some of his best friends in China among American and European scientific colleagues; he also first encountered the American sculptor Lucile Swan in Beijing, with whom he formed a deep, intimate friendship that lasted until the end of his life.

Teilhard returned to Paris after World War II and attracted a considerable following for his ideas. In 1948 he was invited as a candidate for the chair of paleontology at the Collège de France, but fearing further difficulties with the Vatican, his order refused permission. Not being allowed to lecture in public or publish his writings, he accepted a research post at the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research in New York in 1951, and made two trips to fossil sites in South Africa. Lonely and suffering, he spent the last years of his life mostly in New York, where he died in 1955 on Easter Sunday (April 10), as had been his wish. He is buried in the Jesuit cemetery at Saint Andrews on the Hudson.

The posthumous publication of his works raised much interest and controversy due to the exploratory nature, complexity, and unfamiliar terminology of his new ideas, but also due to the challenge of his unifying global vision. Although harshly dealt with by church authorities, Teilhard gained loyal support from several members of his order, especially Henri de Lubac and René d'Ouince, his longtime superior, who described him as "a prophet on trial" in the church of his time.

The Human Being, the World, and God

Teilhard's method is based on a particular kind of phenomenology, different from that of other disciplines. It emphasizes the study of all phenomena by relating outer to inner "seeing." Such seeing involves the correlation of scientific knowledge of the outer world with a unifying inner vision, whereby the world is seen as held together by "Spirit." This holistic approach leads to a profound transformation of the seeing person and the world as seen, for seeing more implies being more.

Teilhard's thought is profoundly ecologicalhe saw human beings as an integral part of cosmos and nature, humankind as part of life, and life as part of the universe. In this dynamic and organic perspective the human being is not a static center, but "the axis and leading shoot of evolution." The rise of evolution is an immense movement through time, from the development of the atom to the molecule and cell, to different forms of life, to human beings with their great diversity. This evolutionary rise toward greater complexity leads in turn to a greater "within" of things, an increase in consciousness and reflection. The idea of greater interiority emerging within more complex organic structures is described as the "law of complexity-consciousness," sometimes called "Teilhardian law," and it is recognized as one of Teilhard's master ideas.

Cosmic, human, and divine dimensions are closely interwoven. Each is involved in a process of becoming, or genesis, and all are centered in Christ. Whereas cosmogenesis refers to the birth of the cosmos, anthropogenesis and noogenesis refer specifically to the emergence of human beings and the birth of thought. These are closely studied by modern science, whereas Christogenesis, or the birth of God in Christ as an event of cosmic significance, can be seen only through the eyes of faith. Cosmic and human evolution are moving onward to a fuller disclosure of Spirit, culminating in "Christ-Omega." The outcome of this forward and upward process cannot be taken for granted but involves human responsibility and co-creativity. For this reason, Teilhard was much concerned with moral and ethical choices, with the hope and energy needed for creating the right future for humanity and the planet, as expressed in The Future of Man (1964). Working for the future and helping in "building the earth" is an important educational task that entails a change of mind and heart in people. Teilhard inquired into the resources of spiritual energy needed to create a better quality of life, greater human integration, and a more peaceful and just world. Although there are thousands of engineers calculating the material energy reserves of the planet, Teilhard inquired about "technicians of the Spirit" who can supply the necessary spiritual energy to sustain the life of individuals and the entire human community.

Here, the spiritual heritage of world faiths and philosophies is most important, providing some of the most valuable spiritual energy resources. Human beings are responsible for their further self-evolution and a greater unification of the human community, but these goals need ultimately spiritual, rather than merely material, resources, and the greatest of these spiritual resources is love. The noosphere as a sphere of thoughtsurrounding the globe like the atmosphere as a layer of air or the biosphere as layer of lifecan also be interpreted as an active sphere of love through which greater bonds of unity, of "amorization," are created between human beings. Teilhard was convinced that people must study the phenomenon of love as the most sacred spiritual energy resource in the same way that they study all other phenomena in the world. Love is so central in his thinking that Teilhard's entire corpus can be interpreted as a metaphysic of love. Yet he also called for a rigorously scientific approach to the energies of love, just as the sociologist Pitirim Sorokin proposed a scientific analysis of the production of "love-energy" in the human community, so necessary for its self-transformation.

Teilhard's dynamic understanding of God is sometimes compared to that of process philosophy and is best described as panentheism. His deeply mystical approach to God is expressed in his spiritual writings, such as The Divine Milieu and The Heart of Matter (1978). It centers above all in the person of Christ, whom Teilhard experienced as a cosmic and universal reality. He spoke of the "three natures" of Christ: human, divine, and cosmic. His numerous reflections on the universal, cosmic Christ contain important suggestions for a new Christology, never systematically developed. Teilhard spoke of the ever-present, ever-greater Christ, expressing a strongly Christocentric vision of faith that was grounded in a pan-Christic mysticism. As he often used the image of fire and heart, drawn from the Bible and the Christian mystics, Teilhard's spirituality can also be described as a fire-and-heart mysticism, at once profoundly modern and ancient. In its affirmation of the world as God's creation, it belongs to the kataphatic rather than apophatic type of Christian mysticism, expressing a strong affinity with contemporary creation spirituality.

Mircea Eliade saw Teilhard de Chardin's specific genius in celebrating the sacredness of the cosmos. However, the cosmos cannot be seen in isolation from the social and spiritual bonds of humanity, animated by the powers of all-transforming love and seeking a higher form of union. Scattered across Teilhard's writings exists a general theory about religion as the driving force in human evolution. Central to the phenomenon of religion and spirituality is the phenomenon of mysticism, experienced in a variety of forms across different religious traditions and culminating in a mysticism of love and action.

Teilhard's vision of the world represents a unique blend of science, religion, and mysticism. Central to it are the ideas of the noosphere and the divine milieuthe first belonging more to a secular context, the second to a deeply religious contextas well as ideas about spiritual energy, and the transformative powers of love. The essayistic, fragmentary nature of Teilhard's work, with its profusion of ideas and fluidity of language, marks him more as a postmodern than a traditional thinker. Insufficiently well known, and often cited out of context, his work contains challenging reflections on God, the world, humanity, science and religion, ecological responsibilities, interfaith encounter, and the convergence of religions. Teilhard's work also explores a greater unification, or "planetization," of humanity; the place of the feminine and love in creating greater unity; and the central importance of spirituality and mysticism. Some of his thoughts are insufficiently developed and opaquely expressed; others must be criticized for certain elements of exclusiveness and Eurocentrism. Yet his ideas are said to have influenced the founding debates of the United Nations, several documents of the Second Vatican Council, Christian-Marxist dialogue, discussions on futurology, and discussions concerning the World Wide Web, whose patron he is sometimes said to be. Others have called Teilhard a New Age prophet, yet such a description ignores the profoundly Christian core of his vision.

Teilhard's mysticism of action is directed towards the creative transformation of the outer and inner world, and it is based on the deepest communion with God, intimately present throughout creation. Teilhard's powerful affirmation of the incarnation and his brilliant vision of the universal, cosmic Christ within an evolutionary perspective provide inspiring ideas for a reinterpretation of the Christian faith in the modern world, governed by an ongoing scientific and spiritual quest. Theologians will be interested in his understanding of God, Christ, and creation; scholars of religion will gain from his reflections on the place of religion, especially mysticism, in human evolution; and scientists are attracted to the newly emerging possibilities of the noosphere and the as yet unexplored energies of love for achieving profound personal and social transformation.


Pierre Teilhard de Chardin's religious and philosophical works were published posthumously in French between 1955 and 1976 in thirteen volumes entitled Oeuvres (Éditions du Seuil, Paris). Their English translations appeared between 1959 and 1978. Also published were numerous volumes of letters, extracts from his diaries, and the collection of his previously published scientific papers, L'Oeuvre scientifique, edited by Nicole and Karl Schmitz-Moormann, 11 vols. (Olten, Switzerland, 1971).

Teilhard presents his evolutionary system in its most complete form in The Phenomenon of Man (London and New York, 1959), now available in a much-improved translation by Sarah Appleton-Weber, The Human Phenomenon (Brighton, U.K., and Portland, Ore., 1999). To understand the full intent of this work, one should first read Teilhard's classic treatment of Christian spirituality in The Divine Milieu (London and New York, 1960; reprint, translated by Siôn Cowell, Brighton, UK, 2004), followed by the theological essays in Science and Christ (London and New York, 1968) and The Heart of Matter (London and New York, 1978). Many readers find the easiest entry into Teilhard's thought through his vivid letters, especially Letters from a Traveller, edited by Claude Arragonès (London, 1966), or through his early, very lyrical work Writings in Time of War (London, 1968) and the selected essays in Hymn of the Universe (London and New York, 1965). This also contains his famous "The Mass on the World," originally written in 1923. Of particular appeal among his other works are The Future of Man (London and New York, 1964), Human Energy (London and New York, 1969), and Christianity and Evolution (London and New York, 1971).

A helpful reference work has been provided by Siôn Cowell, The Teilhard Lexicon (Brighton, UK, and Portland, Ore., 2001), the first English-language dictionary of Teilhard de Chardin's writings and vocabulary. Claude Cuénot's biography, Teilhard de Chardin (London and Baltimore, 1965), with its rich documentation and detailed bibliography of Teilhard's publications, is an indispensable resource, but not as readable as the shorter life by Mary Lukas and Ellen Lukas, Teilhard (New York and London, 1977), or the illustrated biography by Ursula King, Spirit of Fire: The Life and Vision of Teilhard de Chardin (Maryknoll, N.Y., 1996). The vicissitudes of Teilhard's life, especially the censure of his writings, have been amply documented by his Jesuit superior, René d'Ouince, in Un prophète en procès ; vol. 1, Teilhard de Chardin dans l'église de son temps (Paris, 1970). Among numerous commentators the Jesuit Henri de Lubac must rank as one of the best; his early study The Religion of Teilhard de Chardin (London, 1967) is especially helpful. Another Jesuit, Thomas M. King, offers a searching analysis of Teilhard's mystical experience in Teilhard's Mysticism of Knowing (New York, 1981), undertaken from a different perspective by Ursula King in Towards a New Mysticism: Teilhard de Chardin and Eastern Religions (London and New York, 1980), which examines Teilhard's views on Eastern and Western religions in a converging world, including his new mysticism of action. R. C. Zaehner's Evolution in Religion: A Study in Sri Aurobindo and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (Oxford, 1971) provides an insightful comparison between a Hindu and Christian approach to the evolutionary reinterpretation of two different religious traditions; see also Ursula King, "Teilhard de Chardin and the Comparative Study of Religions" in Christopher Lamb and Dan Cohn-Sherbok, eds., The Future of Religion: Postmodern Perspectives, Essays in Honour of Ninian Smart (London, 1999), pp. 5476. J. A. Lyons's The Cosmic Christ in Origen and Teilhard de Chardin (Oxford, 1982) analyzes Teilhard's innovative passages on Christ's "three natures" and his traditional roots in Greek patristics. An earlier overall theological synthesis was undertaken by Christopher F. Mooney, Teilhard de Chardin and the Mystery of Christ (New York, 1966).

Well worth studying are The Letters of Teilhard de Chardin and Lucile Swan, edited by Thomas M. King and Mary Wood Gilbert (Washington, D.C., 1993), especially for their detailed coverage of his China years and his friendship with Swan. Mathias Trennert-Hellwig, Die Urkraft des Kosmos: Dimensionen der Liebe im Werk Pierre Teilhard de Chardins (Freiburg, Germany, 1993) provides the most comprehenssive study of Teilhard's dynamic vision of love. A comparison with Pitirim Sorokin's ideas on love is found in Ursula King, "Love A Higher Form of Human Energy in the Work of Teilhard de Chardin and Sorokin," Zygon 39, no. 1 (2004): pp. 77102.

The diffusion and critical reception of The Divine Milieu, especially in France, has been closely examined by Hai-Yan Wang, Le phénomène Teilhard: L'aventure du livre Le Milieu Divin (Paris, 1999). A wide-ranging discussion of Teilhard de Chardin's spirituality is found in Pierre Noir's "Teilhard de Chardin," Dictionnaire de spiritualité: Ascétique et mystique, doctrine et histoire, vol. 15, pp. 115126 (Paris, 1991); selected texts on spirituality have been thematically grouped in Pierre Teilhard de Chardin: Writings, Selected, with an Introduction by Ursula King (Maryknoll, N.Y., 1999). The background, semantic context, and importance of Teilhard de Chardin's noosphere concept in relation to contemporary scientific discussions are extensively documented in The Biosphere and Noosphere Reader: Global Environment, Society, and Change, edited by Paul R. Samson and David Pitt (London, 1999). The relevance of Teilhard de Chardin's work, especially in relation to contemporary cosmology and ecology, is evident from the essays in Teilhard in the 21st Century: The Emerging Spirit of Earth, edited by Arthur Fabel and Donald St. John (Maryknoll, N.Y., 2003).

Ursula King (2005)

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